Recently the camera on my shoulder dragged me to a place I thought I'd never see - Death Row. Thankfully, it was a brief visit. I made the ninety-minute jaunt to Raleigh's Central Prison at the behest of my producers, who were conjuring up a local tie-in to an upcoming John Walsh special on executions. They needed some 'dramatic footage of our state's killing floor', and while it sounded kind of cheesy, I was all up for visiting the Big House. As long as they let me out when I was through. Which they did. But my time inside was long enough to convince me I was right to put off that tri-state killing spree.
A sour-faced woman in a gray uniform rode an ancient desk in the Visitors Entrance of Central Prison. When I approached her with a smile, she shot it down with a ready-made grimace. As I tried to explain the reason for my visit, she looked me over, taking in my camera, tripod and loud Hawaiian shirt with institutional disdain. Never uttering a single syllable, she thrust a clipboard forward and motioned to the seventies-era plastic chairs in the corner. Ten minutes later I was still filling out forms, surprised at how much personal information was required to visit a facility I helped finance. As I hunched over the clipboard and scribbled furiously, a heavy male voice spoke out.
"You the TV man?"
Looking up, I came face to face with a sawed-off tree trunk of a man. With his wide tie, short-sleeve shirt and sensible brown slacks, my guide for the day looked like some extra from an old 'Barney Miller' episode. But this flatfoot wouldn't be cracking wise to a canned laugh track. Ever. With a suspicious glare, he took the clipboard from my hands and stared at it with the air of a man eternally constipated. The expression fit his face as naturally as the heavy stubble he kept so closely shaved. As he eyed with naked contempt the blanks I'd filled in, I stole a glance at his nametag. ED, it said. Watching him scour the forms for any mistakes or deceptions, I got the feeling Ed didn't give a flip who I thought he looked like, as long as I'd printed it neatly on one of those forms.
Still, it was his house, and I wasn't about to make waves in a building where they inject poison in your veins if you piss them off enough. So for once, I kept my mouth shut and avoided any sudden movement as Ed dug through my fanny-pack, no doubt looking for drugs, pornography and black market cigarettes. When he found only tapes, batteries and a half-filled box of tic-tacs, he handed me the pack and turned to walk down the hall, grunting instructions for me to follow. As we approached a heavy steel door, he paused. Somewhere from within the walls another state employee threw a switch and the door slowly groaned opened - revealing a long, under lit hallway.
"I s'pose you wanna see the death house" - Ed muttered over his shoulder with all the warmth of, well, a prison guard.
"Yeah, that'd be great", I offered. As we made our way down a long corridor, the polished heels of Ed's shiny black shoes echoed their cadence. Slate-gray cinderblock walls watched us pass with blank indifference. A rigid line of caged light bulbs split the narrow ceiling in half, and the blended aroma of sweat, bleach and mothballs reminded me of my time at sea. Somewhere deep in my head, The Doors launched into their longest song.
'This is the end, beautiful friend, the end...'
The sharp thunk of the door reversing in its tracks snapped me back to the present, and I instinctively rolled tape to capture the sound. Ed never broke his stride. As the door behind us closed, one in front of us opened. We waited wordlessly while the massive metal divider rumbled along. When it reached the end of it's chain-driven path, Ed stepped inside to a low-ceiling round room lined with heavy doors. I followed, more than a little reluctantly.
Eight, identical doors line the round room, staring back at each other but unable to see. A waist-high twelve-inch lidded-and-locked slot were the doors' only adornment. A single surveillance camera perched over every locked entrance to nowhere.
"This is ya death house. Six weeks away from execution date, we move tha inmate out of general population and in here. Right now it's empty", Ed said, with just a hint of disappointment in his voice.
Suddenly, one of the eight doors roared to life, rolling leftward on its tracks to reveal a cell no more than ten by ten feet. Squinting through the viewfinder, I centered up the shot and pressed RECORD. It was one of the half dozen sequences requested by my producers, and I remembered why I was taking this hellhole tour in the first place. I glanced at Ed and thought of a way to phrase my next request.
"Hey, you mind if I, uh --"
Something in Ed's tone spooked me, but I dismissed the notion and stepped inside the cell. Hoisting my camera atop the tripod I'd been dragging along, I focused on the room's few items and got to work. The images were suitably Spartan - metal bunk, dull-rusted sink, stainless-steel toilet. As the tally light inside my viewfinder glowed red, Jim Morrison spoke from the grave.
The killer awoke before dawn; he put his boots on...'
The sound of slow-rolling chains suddenly filled the air, and I wheeled around to catch sight of the cell door slowly closing. Ed was nowhere to be seen. Not knowing exactly what I was supposed to do, I did what came natural. I put my eye back to the viewfinder and squared up the shot. WHAM! The sound of the door slamming home bounced crazily off the walls.
Pulling the viewfinder away from my eye, I almost yelled something to myunseen captor but thought better of it. Ed was apparently having some fun with me, and no doubt getting his rocks off in the process. Not wanting to spoil or heighten the experience for him, I put the camera on the floor and sat down on the metal bunk.
As I slowly looked around, I tried to take in every atom of the four walls and ceiling - wondering what details must reveal themselves after a lifetime of staring at the same small enclosure. I realized the room was about the size of my walk-in closet, but opposite in every other way. Instead of being stuffed with well-used possessions, this room was impossibly sterile, devoid of anything feeling like home, bereft of all creature comforts. For some souls, this was the last stop on Planet Earth, A weigh-station to another world. A place to pace, ponder and prepare to die.
The door remained close and I looked at my watch. Only three minutes had passed but it felt far longer. As I stared, the second hand of my watch seemed to slow down. Looking around at the faceless concrete walls, I tried to fathom what it must feel like to spend twenty-three
hours a day in such a place. Months spent deployed on a U.S. Navy ship had already introduced me to incarceration, but that pales in comparison to spending the rest of your life in a box.
'This is the end...my only friend, the end...'
I was relieved to hear the door began sliding on its grooves again. It opened to reveal Ed standing before me, an almost imperceptible smile under his five o'clock shadow.
"Thought you might wanna get a few mo' shots for ya TeeVee sto-ree"
"Yeah - you got me," I glad-handed, not ''s favorite prison tricks. As I stepped out of the cell with camera and tripod in hand, Ed broke into a sickly grin.
"Let's go see The Chair"
A few hallways and groaning doors later, we reached what for some, was
their final Earthly destination. The gas chamber sat empty and silent and as I stepped inside, the medicinal smell rather surprised me. Keeping one eye on my growing-creepier-by-the-moment host, I framed up a shot of the heavy wooden chair dominating the lethal room. Thick leather straps hung from the legs and arms of the chair, straps that had kept doomed men in place while the State pursued justice. In the back corner, a heavy steel stretcher caught my attention. Rolling tape, I panned the room. From behind me, Ed spoke the most words in a row I'd yet to hear him utter.
"This here chair's more 'n sixty years old." Course we don't use it no more, we just roll the stretcher in front of it. Ever' body says lethal injection's better, but I don't know..."
Something in his tone made me look up, and I noticed he was staring at the gas chamber chair with a look usually seen on men admiring racecars, speedboats or exotic dancers. Wondering what good ole Ed might do for fun on his off-time, I turned back to my trusty camera and got back to work. After a few minutes, I had what I'd come for and was growing anxious to taste fresh air again.
But one last sight made me linger. With the death chair directly behind me, I looked through the thick plexi-glass window into the witness room on the other side. Ten empty chairs glared back at me. I thought of what it must be like to stare through that window, to see disaffected press members, distraught relatives and the seething hatred of the victim's family - all while sullen men in catalog-ordered uniforms readied the potion that would soon induce your death. I found myself wondering which searing, sterile image burned into the doomed men's corneas as theycrossed over to meet whatever consequence awaited them.
'Get out', a voice in my head feebly offered.
"Okay, that should about do it", I muttered to Ed - apparently snapping him out of his own haze. "Thanks for your time, I'd better go run and meet that deadline..." I listened to myself prattle on, hoping I didn't sound as eager to leave as I thought I did. Luckily, Ed seemed eager to get rid of me as well. Ever since we'd entered the gas chamber, he'd grown distracted. Perhaps he wanted to polish his beloved gas chamber chair without any outsider's intrusion. Whatever his plans, he seemed in a sudden hurry to see me off, and that was fine with me. As we neared the visitor's lobby, his previous lack of expression returned. Reaching over to pluck the visitor badge off my shirt, he locked eyes with me. As he drew a little too close for comfort, I could smell institutional coffee and Texas cinnamon rolls. Ed smiled that smile again; the same sickly grin he flashed when first mentioned The Chair.
"Ya'll come back and see us"
Within a few minutes I was behind the wheel of my news vehicle, the images I needed caught on tape, and a few I didn't need seared into my frontal lobe. While my brief tour of North Carolina's only sanctioned murder scene didn't totally change my support of capital punishment, it's certainly made me look at it from a whole new perspective. And from now on, whenever I hear of my home state poisoning yet another inmate, I'll know that somewhere deep within the dark confines of Raleigh's Central Prison, my good buddy Ed is wishing they'd use The Chair instead.
Saturday, November 13, 2004
There are days I LOVE my job...
A Last Friday wasn’t one of them. Nothing earth shattering happened, just a prolonged series of predictable events that the average photog might call typical. Thing is, I ain’t average - or typical. I work hard to produce solid packages WITHOUT a reporter, and as a result, I enjoy a bit more autonomy than most shooters. However, two days ago forces outside my control conspired to screw me and at times, I took it like a rookie. Along the way, there were moments of great déjà vu - certain episodes and aspects of the daily chase that strike me as almost universal. I may be wrong, but perhaps this has happened to you…
First Man Down
I knew I was screwed the moment I entered the newsroom. As usual, I’m the first photog in. Say what you will, it is a long-held habit that pays great dividends in story selection. Today however, I would not get to cherry-pick my gig. I’d barely made it to my desk when a burly assignment editor scurried up, shuffling papers and radiating panic. Seems a shooter called in sick and since we were down he needed me to ’load up and hit the road’ with the tall well-dressed fellow standing behind him. I recognized the tall guy as our most recently hired reporter, and as the assignment editor babbled on, I realized resistance was futile. Minutes later, my partner-for-the-day and pulled out of the station parking lot, passing several arriving photogs along the way. Knowing I’d taken a bullet for at least ONE of them, I grinned and flipped-off them ALL.
The New Guy
He seemed nice enough, and was awful cheery -but as I merged on the interstate, I could barely bring myself to look over at my reporter. When I did, a well- groomed twenty-five year old grinned back innocently. He’d only been with us for a week or two and the constantly grinning chap was bubbling with wholesome enthusiasm. His hair cut-close, his dark slacks pressed, and his tie a sensible one - the guy looked like he should be selling bibles somewhere in the Midwest. I know reporters come in all flavors, and I ‘m pretty sure I’ve tried them all. But at the moment, I was more in the mood for some bitter, disillusioned hack than the starry-eyed choirboy seated to my right. As we sped down I-85, I chewed a toothpick and fought the urge to throw his bright Tupperware lunch out the window.
It was then my colleague unfurled our itinerary. Our mission was to package the latest chapter in a controversial school re-districting plan. A press conference was scheduled for eleven o clock and according to the desk, sparks were certain to fly. Not a great story, but okay. I was soothing my veteran feathers with thoughts of one-stop-shopping when The New Guy ruffled them all over again. “Oh yeah, before that we gotta swing by and pick up a vosot. We need to hurry though, it started an hour ago and is probably almost over” Biting my toothpick in half, I spat out the remains and stood on the gas. Racing the clock for forty seconds of forgettable television is something I’ve spent way too much of my life doing, and all familiarity breeds contempt. As I once again made that mad dash, I drove imaginary spikes though assignment-editor voodoo dolls in my head. The fact that I knew we’d make it in time (as we always do) made doing so all the more unpleasant.
Late Morning Collapse
The finger sandwiches told me all I needed to know. As my tall colleague and I sauntered in early to the Department of Education boardroom, I couldn’t stop staring at the decorative lunch items on the corner table. They don’t serve happy food like that at heated confrontations, that is mere workshop fare. I didn’t know all the details of the debate at hand, but I did know my bosses back at the station were desperate for a decent lead story. The ongoing school board saga had provided fodder for weeks, and the suits back at the shop smelled blood. I however, smelled pimento cheese and it told me there would be no controversy here. Pulling my reporter close, I told him of my fears. This ain’t what we thought it was, we’re gonna end up shooting enough for a lame-ass package and they ain’t gonna want it…” I handed him the cell phone and told him to call the bosses, hoping against hope I was wrong. As it turned out, I wasn’t.
“What else ya got for us?” I could hear the head-deskie’s voice coming out the cell phone receiver. My partner, still cheery but growing confused, stammered an answer. I sat behind the wheel and stared at the school board building parking lot through the windshield. ‘What ya got for us? How ‘bout an empty stomach and a bad attitude?’ I chewed over other replies as Too Tall nodded and repeated okay’s into the phone. He hung up and looked over at me. His grin was still there, but it was growing a little vacant. “They want us to go to the strip. The Women’s ACC Tournament’s in town and….”
“They want us to talk to local businesses about the economic impact”, I answered. “I did that same weak piece last year”. Dropping the gearshift into drive, I pulled away and grimaced. If they want me to repeat myself, FINE, but sweeps ended two days ago, it’s now Friday afternoon and I already got thirty minutes of tape in the can. It’s a hell of a time to ask for one of Stew’s Greatest Hits.
Sizzle and Salivate
Fifteen minutes later, I was loitering in the kitchen of a Sports Bar Steak House. After a few too many in-camera questions for the restaurant manager, I shouldered my camera and began collecting b-roll. Busy cooks squeezed past me and passing waiters did double takes at the floating betacam in the prep area. I stared though my viewfinder and bent over the grill, bringing the image of a thick sizzling burger into focus. A plump cook leaned in and made matters infinitely worse by adding bacon. The glorious smell of the savory bacon burger washed over me and I nearly grew feint with imaginary hunger pains. Swallowing my drool, I tried to act casual as I worked the lens into submission. After a few more minutes of deprived taste-bud delirium, I stumbled out of the kitchen and made eye contact with the grinning tall man. “We got enough - get me to a drive-thru, quick!”
Voices From Beyond
The burger I soon devoured was a pale imitation of the one I’d caught on tape. Still, I sat in my mobile office and polished off the McSomething as my reporter exited his fourth hotel in ten minutes. Opening the door to my idling news unit, he hopped in and slammed the door. “Guy said business sucked! Then he went corporate on me.” I chewed my straw and watched passing traffic. I was about to lay out my umpteenth smartass assertion of the desk’s incompetence when the cell phone rang. There wasn’t just one idiot on the line, a half dozen voices called out, sounding as if they were at the bottom of some metallic hole. Speakerphone, the communication choice of the think-tank set. “ Guys, head over to the Mall - It’s been sold - We’re sending you a truck!” The straw dropped from my lips as I processed what I was hearing. When the voices fell silent, I knew they were waiting for a reply. ‘Eff the Mall!’ I wanted to yell. ‘The next time you wanna play jack-around-the-new-guy, LEAVE ME THE HELL OUT OF IT!” Instead, I looked over at my no-longer grinning partner. “Tell whoever’s bringing the truck to meet us on the JCPenney’s side.”
The Truck Swap
At its best, a truck swap can be a moment of reprieve from battle, like the scenes in the Highlander where the far-flung immortals rendezvous briefly at some unlikely spot. It can be a chance to vent, bum a battery or cigarette. Unless of course, the person pulling up in the rolling billboard is LESS than a buddy, a friend or a pal. Then the transaction takes on the air of a tense prisoner swap at some hostile border checkpoint. As you switch gear from the news vehicle to the larger live truck, you try to maintain eye contact with the driver, and wonder if he’s there to aid and assist or merely gather Intel for the goons back at the shop. For better or worse, my would-be rescuer seemed anxious to unload the live truck and be on his way. He did just that, and I found myself hoping I had what I needed as he pulled away in my beloved Ford Explorer - no doubt planning to race it’s engine and pilfer it’s contents.
The Long Wait
What with having to interview uneasy Mall officials, shoot exteriors, process our four stories and cut countless teases, my tall partner and I had our hands full. As curious shoppers rubbernecked their way past our live truck, we juggled the phones, tapes and papers required for your average live shot. And average it was. With a view of the Mall, nearby Convention Center and interstate exchange, there was plenty to look at it and nothing to see. Once the stories were cut, I set up the camera, raised the mast and tuned in the shot. After feeding the tape back to the station and talking trash with the head edit chick, I settled in the back seat of the truck and started the long wait. The generator engine rumbled and the air reeked of exhaust fumes. Up front, my favorite Tall Guy was applying make-up and cheerfully mumbling the lines he would soon deliver live on camera. Amid all this technology and preparation, I sat frozen in the back - my eyes glazing over like some spaced-out junkie. Forty minutes to Showtime, then another fifty-five minutes before our hit at six. As the generator rumbled its long pathetic song, God pressed the pause button and went out for a sandwich.
By the time we made it back to the station, my reporter was no longer grinning. He’d been used and abused by the desk this day, and he was smart enough to know it would happen again. Still, he took the punches and rebuffs well, never losing focus and cursing far less than I. This makes Him the winner and I told him such before dropping him off at the station. Looking down at the gas gauge, I saw that I was well under half a tank. Knowing a half-empty tank would lead to terse voice mails from the chief, I steered the live van back out on the street. The gas station was a block away, and besides after this quick errand my day would truly be done. That was when my pager began vibrating and as I struggled in the darkness to decipher the feint letters I already knew what it probably said. “Don’t forget your ten o clock re-cuts” Once again, I was right when I didn’t want to be.
Tuesday, November 09, 2004
A Dozen More Carcasses Floated in the Toxic Sludge...
I gripped my camera and leaned into the wind as the bass boat plowed through the murky water. Beside me a stoic wildlife officer in designer rain gear stared ahead and gripped the wheel, piloting the skiff through a gauntlet of half-submerged telephone poles. The craft cut a deliberate path through the muddy water, and as we plowed forward, I realized we were traveling a route usually reserved for cross-state truckers. The bow of the small boat slapped the filthy water without mercy, and I tried to fall in synch with its rhythm. I pulled the rain-cover tight around my station’s camera, and squinted at the horizon. In every direction ugly brown water swirled and fermented, courtesy of one bastard of a rainmaker called Hurricane Floyd.
Cradling my camera in my lap, I recorded a few low angles as we skimmed along, before pointing the lens at the craft’s third passenger, a stooped little man in ball cap and soaked overalls. He didn’t return my camera’s gaze; instead he stared into the distance and continued the silence he’d embraced since we left dry land thirty minutes earlier. Bracing myself on the pitching deck, I peered through the blue haze of my viewfinder. I zoomed in on the old man’s weathered face, the shiny water strobing behind him. His eyes were dry, but they conveyed a quiet sadness I’d see a lot of over the coming days. He pulled a tattered rag from a pocket and dabbed his face, perhaps trying to wipe away the vision of the unnatural lake that eclipsed everything around us. The image in the viewfinder muttered something, but the roar of the boat’s engine drowned out the old farmer’s words.
After what seemed like forever of straight trajectory, our square-jawed captain made a sharp starboard turn, and we rounded a stand of battered pine trees. As he eased up on the throttle, the high pitch of the outboard engine subsided to a low throaty rumble. I took the opportunity to dab water drops off my lens as the old man across from me uttered his first words of the trip.
“’Bout a half mile more, just past ’em trees,” he twanged matter-of-factly. “There’s a hun-erd head if there’s a one of ‘em”
I thought about what he said as the Wildlife Officer goosed the accelerator and the small boat chortled forward. Up ahead, a box-like structure stood guard in the middle of the watery expanse. As we got closer, I saw it was a single-wide trailer, the water-line just below its curtain-less windows. Large, indistinctive shapes bobbed all around the pathetic building. I shouldered my beta cam and pushed in with my lens to get a better look, but the pitching deck offered little purchase. Instead, I followed a glint of sunlight as it danced along the metal edges of a nearby road sign - the marker barely poking above the roiling water.
‘River Road’ it proclaimed. Without a thought I steadied up and rolled tape. I was still congratulating myself on bagging my first important image of the day when I heard the old man’s voice break…
The smell hit me before my eyes landed on the target. Just a few feet off the starboard bow, the bloated carcass of a full-grown steer stared back at us. The pungent odor of the rotting beast raced through my sinuses and I hid my face behind the viewfinder. Through it, I watched a delirious green fly pull a piece of flesh from the waterlogged animal’s swollen tongue. I looked away quickly, only to catch sight of another bovine corpse bobbing alongside, followed by another, and another. The Wildlife Officer pulled a state-issued bandana over his emotionless face and piloted the craft through the swirling brown sea of long-dead cattle.
“Never had a chance”, the old farmer said. The worn creases around his eyes squeezed even tighter and he stared off into oblivion, addressing no one in particular. He seemed unaffected by the stench, his weather-beaten nostrils long since given up on unpleasant odors.
“People’s got boats, a damn head a cattle ain’t got a chance in hell --”. AT that, the old man’s voice cracked and he turned even further away, taking in his loss and nursing his pride. I watched the short speech through the artificial blue haze of my viewfinder, punctuated by the steady red glow of the ‘RECORD’ light.
As the twin-engine pushed the boat forward, the age-old mobile home came into sharper focus. As we closed in on the only man-made structure in sight, the number of dead cattle increased. In a desperate lunge for higher ground, the panicking herd had apparently converged on this abandoned trailer, as the passing hurricane had dumped more water on this old pasture than man, or cow, could have imagined. Many of the doomed beasts choked on their own tongues as dirty water filled their lungs. Others had been gored and stomped in the closing minutes of the frantic stampede, their rubbery entrails now exposed to the midday sun. A dozen more carcasses floated in the toxic sludge surrounding the trailer, their lifeless forms rubbing against the metal walls and making a scrubbing, haunting sound.
Our stoic boat pilot pushed in within feet of the mobile home and turned to circle it. At the far end of the front side, the trailer’s thin walls lay splayed open, itself a victim of the storm and ensuing onslaught of frightened cattle. One cow in particular, seemed to have perished during the fight to get inside, his whole left flank ripped open by the sharpened tin. Holding my breath, I rolled tape and tried to picture what it must have been like during those last few horrible moments. The great lumbering beasts thrashing and kicking at each other, fighting to the death in a frenzy of adrenaline and instinct, as the emotionless water rose, and rose, and rose.
“Well, I’ll be damned…” The farmer’s voice snapped me back to reality as the boat rounded the far side of the trailer and we came face to face with the lone survivor of the watery death march. Solid brown with a mask of white on his muzzle, the cow snorted with fear and excitement as he stuck his head out of a shattered window frame.
The look in his dark eyes was wild and knowing, totally unlike the look of bored vacancy usually found in the breed. As our boat made a slow arc around him, he stepped in accordance - tracking our every move. Around him, two more swollen carcasses bumped against his hind legs. Taking us in, the animal roared lowly, seeming to plead for help. I pulled out to a wide shot and wondered if this simple beast understood his perilous state. He had, after all, watched his companions died a horrible death al around him. Bracing myself against the low bulkhead, I zoomed in on his dilated pupils, catching for a second the real (or imagined) guttural pleading within.
On board, the old farmer took off his dirty ball cap and ran his leathery fingers through a shock of white hair. “Been livin’ on this land for more than seventy years, never would ‘a believed it. The good Lord may know what’s best, but I’ll be damned if I can figger it out.”
With that, the man seemed satisfied with the visit and he asked the silent Wildlife Officer to take him back to the command center. As we made our way back through the maze of drowned cattle, the old farmer slumped in a corner of the craft and pulled a plug of tobacco from a pouch hidden in his drenched overalls. No one spoke a word the whole way back, and as the motor droned on behind me, I realized I had a new answer the next time someone asked me what was the weirdest thing I ever saw with a camera on my shoulder.
Sunday, November 07, 2004
Never Try to Hide from a Cameraman...
Today I began work shooting a "Cardio Zuma" class, described to me by the instructor as 'Aerobics with an Attitude'. Come to find out it was a Latin attitude - Ricky Martin filled the air as I walked my tripod around the room and tried not to get caught checking out the hotter Soccer Moms. My EP wanted me to fill two and a half minutes of his upcoming health special, so I stuck around and shot the whole hour-long class. Just when I was getting bored, I spotted a two rather awkward looking gentlemen laboring to keep up in the back of the pack.
Zooming in, I had to laugh as they applied their utter lack of rhythm to the hot Salsa beat. The fat one had one or two moves, but his tall bald buddy was all ass and elbows. Together they looked like two accountants auditioning to be extras in Lambada: The Forbidden Dance 2. As I pushed in with all my glass, it occurred to me the duo was hanging back in an effort to hide from me. Never try to hide from a Cameraman. It's annoying and compels us to capture your image on tape. All I can say is those two cats better not have teenage daughters. I'm about to spread footage of their Dads gettin' their retarded Latin groove on far and wide. Hey, it's what I do.
A week ago today, I wasn't exactly terrorizing middle aged men in spandex. Instead, I donned blue scrubs, hat, mask and booties for an up-close look at Robotic Prostate Surgery. You heard me - Robotic Prostate Surgery. It's the latest craze in removing cancerous prostates! Instead of slicing you from belly button to hooha so they can reach in deep to get past your plumbing, technology has afforded us a new way of extracting the prostate. Now, they can shoot four pencil-thin robotic arms into your torso, and using a 3-D viewing console, manipulate the tiny surgical tools inside the body. Think of it as remote-control surgery, one with lots of plasma-monitors blaring color images of the quivering interior of the patient's rectum. Katie Couric eat you heart out.
I amused myself with the normal cutaways and chatted with the masked nurses and surgical assistants. They were very accomodating and offered me every vantage point available. I walked around the operating room, making sure not to accidentally unplug the many extension cords covering the floor. I didn't want to be responsibel for any sudden flatlines. As far as surgeries go, I've shot gnarlier, but I did enjoy freaking out co-workers with close-up shots of the robot arm slicing through fatty tissue with its mini-blowtorch. Is that so wrong?
Two weeks ago, my producers dispatched me to the nearest Subway Shop for a local version of 'When Animals Attack!' The night before, innocent citizens were chowing down on their favorite subs when a doe - a deer - a female deer crashed through the front door at breakneck speed. It shot like a bullet down the aisle before crashing into a back wall. Diners gasped and one rather effeminate sandwich-maker did a quick Little Richard impression, but the young deer paid them no mind. Dazed from smacking the back wall, it braced itself on its thin wobbly legs before bolting for the door, disappearing into the night. I know all this because the entire 45-second episode was caught on surveillance tape. Hi-speed, quad-box black-and-white, but video nonetheless.
The door had been repaired by the time I arrived, but the owner gladly talked on-camera and then handed over the surveillance tape. Better yet, he coughed up four large samples of Subway's new salads. Might I recommend the Chicken Ceaser? I plowed through mine back at the shop as a buddy and I imported the surveillance footage to the NLE server. Once it was we in , we sliced and diced, blowing the four quadrants of the screen full and slowing it down by sixty percent.
What had started as grainy high speed four cams on one screen was now four full-screen real-time angles of the deer's breaking and entering. We even managed to slow the sound and enjoy the muffled shrieks of the flailing sandwich-maker. In the end, tehy merager footage made for a nice minute-thirty piece, something for our anchors to bellow about in the b-block.
LOOK WHO'S COMING TO DINNER? IT ISN'T JARED!
A PIEDMONT CASE OF WHEN ANIMALS ATTACK!!!
But first, your Five Day Dopplerific Forecast!"
That same night we led with a breaking story on a raging school board debate, but I know what viewers will remember are the multiple slow-mo takes of Bambi freaking out the dinner crowd at Subway.
At least I'm doing meaningful work.
Saturday, November 06, 2004
N.C.’s CEO rotated at the waist like a southern-fried robot...
I kicked off 2004 in grand style, huddling under a homeless-shelter awning on a freezing-cold January morning. That morning, the local paper led with a story on a new study examining the number of transients in North Carolina. As often happens, my managing editor read the story over breakfast and decided he’d like to see it televised. Thus, I found myself loitering outside the local urban ministries, looking for sights and sounds to go with a few cold hard facts.
It wasn’t a hard assignment, and neither was it my first trip to a homeless shelter. Any TV news photographer who’s been on the street six months has stepped foot in a shelter or soup kitchen. In fact, most shooters can tell you what the turkey smells like on Thanksgiving morning there, but that’s another story. For now, I just wanted to get in and get out without any drama. For the most part, I was successful.
Most shelters turn out their residents first thing in the morning - declaring the living quarters off-limits until five o clock or so that evening. As a result, a shifting crowd of sleepy vagrants can usually be found orbiting the premises. This day was no exception. As I popped open the tailgate of my heavily festooned Ford Explorer, two dozen men sporting varying degrees of bed-head eyed me sourly. Walking toward them, I smiled innocently, looking from one bedraggled stranger to another. Most met my gaze with indifference, some seemed uneasy, and one person broke into a dentally neglected grin. Suddenly, a fellow on the left broke and ran, perhaps to avoid my camera’s gaze, perhaps to attend an important board meeting. Whatever the destination, I knew better to look around after him too much. Without a word, a pockmarked stranger opened the door for me, and chewing on his unlit Newport as I squeezed past. When I pushed my camera and tripod through the worn doorframe, pitch-black washed over me.
Until my eyes adjusted to the low wattage lighting of the shelter’s interior. When they did, a large, familiar face met me with a smile. I didn’t know his name but instantly remembered the three hundred pound ‘floor boss’ with the low rumbling voice. I remembered interviewing him a year earlier, his on-screen image seared into my brain. With a motion to follow, he turned and waddled slowly through the maze of bunk beds and dirty laundry. I walked behind him, holding my gear up high and scanning the edges of the room for pools of natural light. Along the way, my hefty host checked the bunks. A few featured silent sleeping forms, shelter residents who worked night shifts and were allowed to be inside during the day. I use to wonder how they could sleep so soundly in a room filled with noise and daylight. Then I remembered interviewing people living under train trestles, and I kept my mouth shut.
After framing up my portly guide in a mercifully medium shot, I asked a few questions while the tally light shone. As he answered, I listened through my headphones and trained my eyes on the viewfinder. Though his bulging waistline seemed incongruent in the threadbare surroundings, I knew my interview subject’s massive bulk warehoused a heart of gold. Still, I was certain someone back at the shop would snicker at the fat man’s image and ask me how many homeless guys he ate. It never failed.
Fifteen minutes later, I was back out in the cold, interviewing those who agreed to be on camera, and keeping a casual eye on those who wouldn’t. Overall, it was pretty casual. Despite what you might see on a bad cable TV movie, homeless people are NOT addicted, delusional drifters. Not all of them anyway. Poll the members of your local bread line and you’re sure to find the formerly refined, surprisingly educated and once well cared-for. You’re also sure to be glared at, flipped off and continually asked for cigarettes - even if you show no signs of smoking.
But surfing the edges of the Great Unwashed is just part of the street-level craft some people insist on calling “Photojournalism” Whatever name you use, it’s an intensely twisted gig. My TV news camera acts as a potent passport, one that brings me in regular contact with urine-soaked vagrants and over-cologned captains of industry - often within hours of each other. That was certainly the case that cold January Day. I’d no sooner knocked the dirt from the homeless shelter off my boots than the silent but deadly pager on my hip began vibrating madly.
‘GUV @ Convention Center - NOON’
Thirty minutes later, so was I - strolling across the plush carpet of a bejeweled ballroom with trusty camera and not so trusty tripod in tow. My faded jeans and station fleece once again distinguished me from the crowd but in a far different way than at the shelter. Outside the soup kitchen, I was a dashing figure of assumed-authority and countless freedom. But once inside the Grand Hall filled with fat cats in dark blue suits, my casual apparel marked me a member of the lower class - no more noticeable to the high-dollar crowd than the army of Filipino waiters scurrying about in heavily starched tuxedo shirts.
However, I didn’t come to model the latest in photog wear. I came to cover my state’s top administrator addressing a group of bored business leaders, and doing so wouldn’t call for any costume changes or ‘wardrobe malfunctions’. What it would require is a little patience, for while the footage of the Governor glad-handing the local jet-set would only last forty-five seconds on TV- procuring said images takes a little longer. After whispering in a PR flack’s ear, I settled in a far corner and leaned on my tripod, watching idly as senior executives poked at overpriced lunches of rubber chicken and chewy salad. Manning the podium, Governor Easley droned on - mixing democratic double-speak and homespun homilies with practiced skill.
My skills weren’t getting much practice at all, however. After taping the first few minutes of the Governor’s speech, I turned the camera off and daydreamed, occasionally scribbling in the small black-and-white notebook that never leaves my person. By the time I’d filled up the first page with disjointed phrases, the distinguished speaker uttered the phrase, “Finally, I’d like to …” Years of press-conference conditioning kicked in and I put away my notebook, shouldered my gear, and began creeping toward the side stage entrance. As I did, the PR flack I chatted up earlier made eye contact with me from across the room and began strolling in my direction.
By the time we came to meet at the side door, waves of applause were washing over the podium. North Carolina’s CEO rotated at the waist and waved like a grinning southern-fried robot. When he’s made a clean sweep of the politely adoring crowd, he broke from the spotlight and began walking briskly toward me. As the din of a thousand manicured hands clapping filled the Grand Hall, I was wordlessly whisked into a backroom with the top politico, his handlers and a few bodyguard types.
As I pinned the wireless microphone to the Governor’s crisp lapel, I thought about how that very same mic had been fastened to a half-dozen unwashed transients just ninety minutes before. I chuckled to myself and the silver-haired gentleman from Raleigh raised a well-manicured eyebrow. For a brief second, I wondered if he could somehow read my thoughts. That’s when I realized I had no idea WHAT to ask the Governor. Luckily, experience kicked in, and I lobbed a softball anyone could knock out of the park.
“So tell me Sir, what message do you bring to Greensboro today?”
Friday, November 05, 2004
The Rolling Herd Emerged Through the Shimmering Heat...One of my strangest moments behind the lens came four years ago when I was covering a group of fraternity brothers as they cycled through my area as part of the 'The Journey of Hope'. I forget what charity the ride benefits, but it's a summer-long cross-country bicycle trek of some distinction. As a mountain biking hobbyist myself, I was quite stoked to cover this highly visual event and I attacked it with great zeal.
After a series of phone calls, I rendezvoused with the young cyclists about thirty miles away from my station. The group of young men sat underneath a store awning, taking refuge from the summer sun and eating apples, bananas and other healthy things. They all seemed quite tired from the morning ride, but to a man they smiled at my arrival and eagerly welcomed my questions and camera.
Before long, I'd separated the more verbose riders from the crowd and began interviewing them one by one. In their matching bike shorts and jerseys, they were the picture of heroic youth, and their attitudes backed up this impression. As my betacam churned tape through the record deck, each young fraternity brother downplayed their individual efforts and credited their fellow riders with helping them get through the arduous trip.
In no time, I had all the sound I needed, chatting happily with the riders off camera as they finished up their meal. As they packed away the remains of their meal it struck me that I have been wrong classifying frat guys as unimaginative, knuckle-dragging conformists all these many years. I found myself admiring their attitudes, enthusiasm and work ethic. But all esoteric thought melted away as they saddled up and began pedaling around the parking lot. This is what I'd come for...
Five minutes later, I pulled my news unit onto the shoulder of the highway and dashed to the back of the vehicle. By the time I had the camera on the tripod and the viewfinder fired up, the line of cyclists broke the horizon. Through the lens, I watched the rolling herd emerge through the shimmering heat waves coming off the asphalt. I stayed with the shot until they neared, zooming out and riding the focus as they filled the tiny screen. Finally, I yanked the camera sideways and recorded the scene of them blowing past me - a matching yellow blur of strength and valor.
Once they were past, I jumped behind the wheel and dropped the idling news unit into Drive. As I pulled onto the highway, I drumming my fingertips on the steering wheel to the beat of Stevie Ray's blistering Stratocaster. I was in the zone, doing what I feel I'm designed to do, and calculating the next perch, one that would give me yet a different angle of the single-file pack.
Three times I did this, passing the line of cyclists on the four-lane highway, racing ahead and setting up a shot to capture their swift progress. Lucky for me, they were heading toward my station and I figured by the time they passed it, I'd have enough high-energy footage to make one hell of a signature kicker. As I pressed the accelerator to catch up with them yet again, I was drunk on my favorite brand of Electronic News Gathering.
Until I crested the next hill. Red brake lights caught my attention as cars ahead of me swerved to the shoulder. I passed a few until I noticed one of the haphazardly parked vehicles was the 'Journey of Hope' pace car. A sick feeling washed over me when I saw several bicycles lying on the edge of the road ahead, their young riders racing on foot into the distance. I pulled over immediately, got out of my brightly-logo'd Explorer and took in a most sobering scene.
Up ahead, the young cyclists huddled around a fallen comrade. Yelling his name, they cried and stomped the way young men do when faced with forces beyond their power. A few attempted CPR, others cursed the clouds. One biker ripped off his yellow jersey and tore it to shreds in frustration and heartache. I didn't want to believe what I was seeing, but a quick glance at a mangled bike and dented SUV told me it was true. An ambulance's siren wailed in the distance, erasing any doubt.
So I did the only thing I COULD do. I quietly popped the tailgate, pulled out my gear and began rolling tape from a considerable distance. Nothing could have made me plunge into that crowd with shouldered camera, but not to record it all would have felt wrong and cowardly. Two cyclists noticed me and ran back to protest my lens, but the silent look I gave them must have told them I took no pleasure in documenting this turn of events, for they melted back into the scene and left me alone. Of that I was grateful, since I knew the next action I took would be rather indelicate.
"Newsroom, please" I said when the cell phone's dialing turned into our receptionist's voice.
Seconds later I explained to the news managers how they'd have to re-think the story I was working on.
"Good Lord....okay - look, try and get some sound with the other riders...", came the response I halfway expected.
"No way - I'm done here. If you want sound, you're gonna have to send a reporter."
The voice on the other end didn't like my answer, and during the long pause that followed I thought about it myself. Maybe it WAS a cop-out, but I wasn't about to play vulture any more than I already had. If the callous suits back at the shop wanted more pain to sex up their brand new lead, it wouldn't be by ME. Let them send a better-groomed blowhard to do their bidding. If my calculations were right, they'd never get here in time anyway...
Which they didn't. By the time the reporter arrived, the scene had cleared. Only the state trooper remained, and he was too busy taking measurements to answer any questions. Minutes after he pulled up, the reporter was following me in my rear view mirror as we headed back to the station.
The young cyclist died later that day at the hospital, his insides hopelessly altered by the force of colliding with a merging SUV. We opened our evening newscast with the story, first with video of the fraternity brothers gathered around their unseen friend, followed by some of my earlier beauty shots of the bicyclists pumping in unison. All in all, the story lasted no more than forty seconds and featured no on-scene sound-bites.
Not that I cared. I felt I'd done my job by shooting the aftermath, and yet saved a bit of my humanity by not sticking a lens in anyone's face. But I was still conflicted as I went home that night and played with my kids. Somewhere, the parents of a grown son were writhing in agony, and I wasn't completely proud of my role in the whole thing. All I was really sure of is that I'd write about it someday. Someday, when I better understood what happened along that highway.
Truth is, I'm still waiting.